“A collision between grace and brutality”—Natasha Mieszkowski on capturing childhood in fiction

Natasha Mieszkowski, Burlington Writers Workshop author

Natasha Mieszkowski, author of “Bug,” one of four short stories in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

Our fiction editor, Elizabeth Gaucher, recently had this exchange with Natasha Mieszkowski, author of the short story, “Bug.” “Bug” is one of four stories featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 anthology. Natasha lives in Northern New York. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, and currently is co-editor of fiction for Mud Season ReviewHere’s what Natasha had to say about developing the child character, Bug, and how she uses scenes to advance her story.

Bug is the name of the child protagonist and point of view character in your story. He leapt out at me immediately as an exceptional character, truly unique and compelling. How did you come to create Bug? Did you have any particular inspiration for him?

Bug grew out of a scene I had in my head of a child interacting with a weird cat. Then I was driving home on a winter night and the car ride scene joined with that scene. He’s not based on anyone I know, he’s more a compilation of strange childhood impulses I still remember. I did, however, know the cat [featured in “Bug”]. He never blinked.

You sustain a very tight, intimate world in this story. There are few characters and only two settings we “see,” a car and an apartment. By implication there are other settings, but everything takes place in one car and one small apartment. Did you know when you set out to write this story you would keep it this close, or did the narrative just tell you what it needed? How did you decide to keep things mostly on a car seat, a couch, a kitchen chair?

I try to think of things from a child’s perspective. The whole world is huge, but what is right in front of you means everything. When everything is too overwhelming, you need to break it down into smaller segments.

It helps to compartmentalize it, to isolate and really explore all of Bug’s small moments. What might seem minor and significant to an adult can seem huge to children, can occupy their entire world. The details that are so worn out for us are new to them, vibrant and unexplored. So you don’t necessarily need an expansive territory when writing from a child’s perspective. A car seat can be an entire universe.

There is an unseen character in this story, Bug’s father. Yet he is profoundly influential and ever-present. How did you go about creating this character, one who in some ways drives all the action and yet never appears or speaks?

Silence and absence can really help you punctuate a story. By writing around a gap you end up revealing so much about it, and the present characters, just through how they behave, react, and remember. It’s the elephant in the room, and it carries a lot of weight.

There is always an ‘outside’ affecting our decisions and our lives. The father character is both an ‘outside’ and an internal presence for Bug. For me, this story has always pivoted around the bar of soap, a tangible representation of a person Bug both misses and fears.

As the literary community knows, Harper Lee passed away this year. Her general readership adores To Kill a Mockingbird for its social justice messages and heroic father figure. Most writers, though, admire this work for its consistent narration by a child. It’s incredibly difficult for an adult writer to establish and maintain a child’s point of view. How did you go about structuring this story and keeping everything in Bug’s POV? Were there special challenges in your early drafts?

The challenges always revolve around vocabulary, and characters’ awareness. Would Bug be able to understand the meaning of the phone ringing? Am I using the right words to communicate his experience to the reader? It’s about striking a balance between a raw world of unarticulated emotion and adult reality.

It’s kind of like puppy-proofing a home. You just get down there on the floor and see things from their eyes. The scale of everything becomes different. A puff of dust is a mountain. It’s challenging but incredibly refreshing.

What special value do you see in the child narrator/POV?

Children have a unique way of seeing things. In a sense they have a great amount of freedom in how they express themselves. At the same time, they lack the vocabulary and social knowledge to respond in the way adults might. They are subject to all of the emotions and circumstances that adults are exposed to, yet have a limited set of skills in terms of how they can react.

I feel this gives a pure lens into human experience. Childhood can have a raw, unfiltered take on things, which can drive a story toward the most primitive and pivotal emotions.

Childhood, for me, has always been a collision between grace and brutality. We lived near woods and a river when I was growing up, and I remember once our family dog came home carrying what I thought was a stick. It was a deer’s leg.

It is this juxtaposition between innocence and a pragmatic knowledge I am reaching for.

You are very good at writing scenes. “Bug” hums along with some amazingly well-wrought scenes, and it’s clear that you are skilled at avoiding expository writing. Has that always been the case? Is it natural for you to write in scenes or is it something you have developed over time? Any tips for other writers?

When I start a story it usually begins with one image. This is why I struggle with plot. I have an image and the story takes off from there. I am attracted to very small moments, and want to see what I can extract from awkward intimacies. Writing is awkward and painful. I tend to keep things condensed into scenes because that is what makes sense to me. Interactions between people are often just microscopic happenings, that don’t seem important at the moment but ultimately mean everything.

So I guess I just stack the scenes on top of each other like building blocks, and try to tie them together to make a sound structure.

Own what you feel, and visualize it. The world you write should be the world you live in, for the moment. Let everything else around you disappear.

How did you come to write fiction? Do you mostly write short stories? What do you like about fiction writing?

I actually never thought I could write fiction. I used to write poetry when I was a kid, but was eventually pulled away by art forms that were a bit more social in nature. Then one day a theater friend boasted he was the better writer, and something clicked inside. I took a class at a local university just to prove him wrong. The instructor took me aside one day and told me I should go to grad school.

I write short stories partly because they are the underdog of literature, and I have a contrary nature. Everybody says you have to write a novel in order to get anywhere and that may be the case. But I’m not willing to let go of the short story. It’s an art form that deserves its own significant place and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the pressure to publish ‘the novel.’

How has your engagement with the Burlington Writers Workshop influenced your development as a writer?

The Burlington Writers Workshop has been invaluable to me. I didn’t know anybody or anything when I moved to this area, and this group gave me a platform to express myself, and a community I could be a part of. The workshops are so helpful, and are always aimed at helping a writer to achieve his or her goal. Frankly, if I hadn’t discovered this group, I might not still be writing. It’s a warm, encouraging group of people who just want to see everybody grow and learn in their progress as writers.

The final scene of “Bug” is intense. I’ve heard people call it things like terrifying, powerful, and unforgettable. I admire it for its layered complexity. You leave the reader with a lot of possible interpretations and debates. Without giving too much away, how did you develop that scene?

I wanted there to be a climax that concerned Bug, from his point of view, while bringing in the unseen, hovering presence of the father. I wanted it to be Bug’s scene. He is the one who has to launch himself out of this hurt. But because of his young age he isn’t fully able to comprehend what is happening, the significance of the events, or even his own actions. He’s operating on raw emotion and reaching for something he doesn’t even understand.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a short story about an empty box of wine. And how to get rid of it.

To hear Natasha and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >

More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshopseries. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >

 

Podcast: “The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014” Book Launch Party

If you missed the launch of The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014, fear not! You can still listen to the podcast here. Our readers were: Wendy Andersen, Liz Cantrell, Cynthia Close, Michael Freed-Thall, Hillary Read and Rebecca Starks.

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You may also want to subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. Just search for “Burlington Writers Workshop” and you’ll find us.

BWW Member Fiction Published in Seven Days

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Author Michael Freed-Thall

Burlington Writers Workshop member Michael Freed-Thall’s piece, “Fort Stockton Blues,” appears in Seven Days this week. Many workshop members will remember earlier versions of this story, in which the main characters were male. Michael worked hard to get this story right, and as you can see, he nailed it.

Congratulations to Michael for a job well done!

 

Publishing Your Work: Panelists Answer More of Your Questions

The panelists from “Publishing Your Work: When, How, Why” agreed to answer you follow-up questions. Here are their answers.

Q. How would one get started with publishing poetry?

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Jessica Swift Eldridge

Jessica Swift Eldridge: Look into Poets and Writers and Publisher’s Marketplace. Ask questions on social media about how others got started. Find information about your favorite poets and how they got their starts.

Dede Cummings: Join Poets & Writers. Submit to small journals and local publications/contests. Attend workshops.

Q. How can you judge if your manuscript has a chance at winning a contest? Do you need individual poems published in particular places? Do you need to feel a kinship with the judge’s poetry, or with the poetry published by the journal sponsoring the contest?

Jessica Swift Eldridge: I don’t know that you can judge whether you have a chance of winning, outside of: ensuring that your work is the best it can (it’s been edited and beta read); ensuring that the manuscript actually coincides with the guidelines of the contest; and you feel confident putting your work “out there.” I suspect that it would be important for the poet to feel like their poetry is a good fit for whatever publication/contest they’re submitting to. Without that connection, it may feel like your work doesn’t belong where you’re submitting. I see nothing wrong with submitting to any contest you think you might have a chance of winning and/or gaining recognition from.

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Dede Cummings

Dede Cummings: Check out what types of poems they are publishing. If you are a nature poet, look at Orion. If political, look at Kenyon Review. It is extremely competitive. As I mentioned, my work somehow made its way to Connotation Press. Very small but nurturing publisher. I love them.

Q: If a poetry contest wants to know your plan for promoting your book should they publish it, what is a good plan?

Jessica Swift Eldridge: Marketing plans can be very difficult to create without a marketing background, so I am not giving anything other than my opinion here. Many publishers are looking for and asking about the writer’s social media platforms. How many Facebook fans do you have? How many Twitter followers? Do you blog? How many visitors do you get? I think a solid marketing plan includes an explanation of how the author is going to effectively utilize social media to gain/maintain buzz. Many publishers now want to ensure that the writer is already marketing themselves and their work. What are you doing to establish/develop a social media presence? If you’re not, what will you do?

Being available for and willing to participate in speaking engagements and/or readings is another component of a marketing plan. But remember, the publisher is asking what the author will do. Do you have connections with libraries/book stores/speaker’s bureaus? Are you willing to establish and/or set up these speaking opportunities? Do you have already have potential opportunities in the works?

Dede Cummings: Tell them you will work tirelessly to promote—readings, media, schools, libraries, PR—present your own marketing plan and PR plan. Secure some in advance, locally, if you can. I have one poet I am publishing (Leland Kinsey of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont) who is scheduling his own statewide tour in April when his book comes out. He is a force!

Q: Should someone who has not published a book of poetry submit only to “first/second book” contests, or consider others as well?

Dede Cummings: I am not a fan of spending tons of money to submit. I look for contests for first book, smaller magazines. Build a resume that way. Last year, I submitted to the Vermont Poetry Broadside Series and came in second place—that can go on my resume now! Small and steady is Dede’s advice, though submit to the occasional magazine or journal—why not? Getting a form letter is a bummer, but getting a personal note is the bom! (Almost better than getting a publishing deal…almost!)

Question for Jessica Swift Eldridge: Is the level of control vastly different working with your own company versus working as an employee of a publishing house? Do you feel like your editorial services go to more artistic work than in the larger publishing world?

JSE: One of the benefits of having created my own company is that I get to choose the projects I work on, rather than being told by a publisher or an editorial director what I’ll be editing. I work with numerous authors and writers who are intentionally pursuing and/or are continuing to self-publish. As a result of this, I get the opportunity to work with some incredible writers who are extraordinarily talented, but their work may not be considered “mainstream” enough for the traditional publishing world, though there is still a market for it. By working closely with the writer, I get to be very artistic in terms of establishing structure for the manuscript (a very creative process), working on cover design ideas, and looking at other areas of publishing, like interior design. By working with independent clients, my work often becomes about the author’s/writer’s voice and tone in their work, rather than simply ensuring that a manuscript conforms to a “house standard.” This is NOT to say that I didn’t get to be creative when I worked in-house, I just prefer the freedom and flexibility I have now, and the relationships I develop with my clients are much closer than what I was able to develop when I worked in-house.

Q for JSE: What does an editor get paid?

JSE: Editorial and design rates vary depending on numerous factors, including: the provider’s experience, type of service, length of manuscript, etc. For more information and to get a GENERAL idea of rates, visit http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php.

Q for JSE: As an editor, what drives you crazy?

JSE: Great question. Nothing really makes me crazy. But there is one thing that I commonly encounter that does get to me—writers feeling insecure about themselves and their creations, to the point where they start to have doubt. For example, I’ve been told, “Oh, my manuscript is so bad, you probably don’t even want to look at it,” and “I’m sure it’s full of errors so don’t bother reading it if you don’t want to.” Writing is extraordinarily personal; I understand that. And passing your work off to someone who is going to read it and critique it is incredibly scary. I understand that, too. But I want to tell writers to have confidence in themselves. The goal of working with an editor is to learn and grow in your writing. So be proud of what you’ve created. Approach sharing it with others with an attitude of excitement. After all, you wouldn’t tell someone your child is ugly, so why tell someone your manuscript “baby” is terrible. Go forth and write! It’s a process. An exciting one.

Jan Elizabeth Watson

Jan Elizabeth Watson

Question for Jan Elizabeth Watson: What has your experience in publishing shown you about the world of published authors? Do you hope to one day publish with a major publishing house or do you plan to continue to publish independently?

Jan Elizabeth Watson: My second novel, What Has Become of You, is actually going to be published by Dutton, and imprint of Penguin/Random House, which is now the largest publisher in the world. The publication date is May 1st, 2014. Although there are many merits to independent publishing, I have to say that I have already had a more satisfactory and gratifying experience working with the larger house. I certainly feel more validated and more equipped to consider big-ticket items that I thought might not be possible—paying off my graduate student loan debt and buying my own home, for example.

As for what my experience in publishing has shown me about the world of published authors, I have clearly seen that there are many talented writers who go unpublished due to the restrictions of the current market and the limited budgets at most publishing houses today. This is not a reason to despair, but it does mean that the writer who seeks publication must be especially resilient.

Q for JEW: How influential was your MFA program in shaping your writing style?

JEW: My style didn’t alter much at all, and I noticed right away that I was writing in a distinctly different style from most of my fellow workshoppers, who were writing clipped, postmodern stories. My influences come mostly from early English novels and contemporary writers like A.S. Byatt and William Trevor. I have a natural tendency toward expansiveness, and I learned some good editing habits in the MFA program; I learned the difficult lesson of having to sometimes trim back one’s voluptuous prose in order to keep narrative momentum. I suppose I developed more precision in my writing also, though I think a lot of this has also stemmed from my teaching experience, post-MFA.

Q for JEW: What value do MFA programs have?

JEW: What value MFA programs have depends entirely on the individual who is considering one. I don’t believe that MFA programs are for everyone, and by no means do I think they predict career success as a writer. In my own particular case, I pursued an MFA because I loved the workshop experience. I loved the little electric buzz that goes around the conference table during an especially productive workshop session; it was like a drug! I knew, also, that I wanted to teach writing at the college level so that I could help others experience this same sensation. My MFA enabled me to do that.

Jon Clinch

Jon Clinch

Question for Jon Clinch: Was your decision to move to your own imprint a financial decision or a personal one? Did you think you could produce work that is more profitable on your own label, or did you make the move because you felt you couldn’t do the work your own way with a major publication?

Jon Clinch: I’d had such a good experience with my pen-name project, WHAT CAME AFTER, that I thought I’d give it a shot. Additionally, I was disappointed in how KINGS OF THE EARTH had been handled by my publisher. Although it was Oprah’s number one book for the summer, it wasn’t available in stores until a couple of months later — by which time it had fallen out of the public consciousness.

Q for JC: How and why did you change agents? How did you address the question of why you were leaving your old agent?

JC: My first agent wanted to control my word-by-word output, in a way that proved both unhelpful and unnecessary. His ear for what I was doing — and thus, most likely, his set of contacts for selling my work — was all wrong. As for addressing the question, let’s just say that it didn’t come as any surprise to him.

Q for JC: How does being on top of the Amazon list translate into dollars? Is it worth aspiring to?

JC: Selling more books, at least as long as you’re really selling them and not just giving them away for a few pennies, is always to be aspired to.

Q for JC: Why use a pen name?

JC: WHAT CAME AFTER wasn’t in keeping with the brand identity I’d established for myself with FINN and KINGS OF THE EARTH. Plus, by using a pen name I was able to keep the self-publishing experiment clean.

Q for JC: How did the experience of publishing The Thief of Auschwitz compare to publishing your other literary novels traditionally?

Q: It was just as nerve-wracking. As for the financial end, I’d say THIEF has earned as much as or more than an average literary novel with a big house. It has not served me as well as FINN and KINGS, which got outsized advances.

Question for Dede Cummings: Does designing books for major publications versus independent publications vary drastically? Do you feel more in control of the artistic direction, or more able to work with the writer, when designing a book through an independent publication? Do corporate publishing houses impose stricter limitations and guidelines, or is there a broader scope in which to operate with the benefit of stronger financial backing?

Designing books for major publications and smaller ones does differ, but not dramatically. Major houses, like Random House, have superb sales teams that really dictate the cover design choice. I have always liked doing interior design for the freedom it allowed me. I can interpret and synthesize the author’s work without a sales team breathing down my neck. Smaller presses are often distributed by a larger publisher; for example, Random House publishing services distributes Shambhala, one of my clients. People don’t realize that the larger distributors have their own sales team, and they also dictate a lot of cover designs and book titles. A real indie press, like Green Writers Press (my own), offer a degree of author control and cooperation not found with the bigger houses, or secondary publishing houses. With that autonomy offered by a truly independent press comes a lack of financial advance and broad marketing for a new book. A large advance has to be paid back to the publisher before the author can get royalties—often the author will not receive royalties unless the book is a huge seller. It is a personal decision with whether to go large or small—financially, it makes sense to get the large advance and sacrifice the autonomy of design and control. However, some writers want to control the project and the birth of their book is more important than the money. A good balance is a writer working with the editor and the marketing/PR team at the publishing house in collaboration. The marketing/distribution sales team knows the business very well, and should be respected for that. It is a very delicate line, a balance. If more than one book offer is on the table, it is a good idea for agent and writer to meet with the editor, and really sit down to discuss how the book will be produced, and more importantly, sold.

Small presses, generally, do not have money for five- and six-figure advances. They just don’t have the capital for this. A nice advance from a small publisher is somewhere around $15,000. The larger houses can offer six figures if they really want something, and they still do that, though not so much as in the past. I recently negotiated a deal for $35,000 and we were very pleased. Another thing, the payments for the advance come in increments not in one lump sum.

Agents receive 15% of the authors advance, royalties, and other rights, like foreign rights and film rights and sales on the secondary market. Some writers offer a 20% royalty to motivate the agent to make a sale. Sub-agents on secondary sales usually earn 5%.

Q for DC: How do you see digital publishing influencing both small and large publishing
houses?

DC: Big time! Go digital, but respect print, too. Digital isn’t growing like it was initially. A lot of people want to relax with print, not a screen.

Q for DC: What advice do you have for getting short stories published?

DC: As with poetry, Jan said read the acknowledgements pages: write down the journals and look them all up. Start small and build up.

Click here to download the podcast of the panel discussion.

How Many Literary Journals Does The World Need?

litjournalsAt least one more. Since BWW members indicated in the BWW 2014 Survey that we’d like to create one, it’s probably wise to think about the benefits of and reasons for doing so. Here are the top four reasons (there are more, of course, but I’ll keep this short).

Experience. What’s it like to put a literary journal together? What can we learn from the submissions we receive, even if we don’t print them? How can we make use of and improve our editing and graphic design skills? This is a learning opportunity for any writer in Vermont. Isn’t that exciting?

There’s lots of great literature out there looking for a home. I’ve heard of some literary journals receiving hundreds of submissions every month. Clearly not every story/essay/poem can find an audience in the existing stock of journals. This new project will expose more readers to new/different writers.

It’s fun. Maybe this is just a bit of geeking out on my part, but I think this kind of thing is enjoyable.

We’re special. Many print literary journals are attached to universities or small presses. We’re not. Anyone can join this workshop. Thus, anyone can be involved in some aspect of its creation and promotion.

Of course, there is the question of money, so here’s the deal: We need 25 workshop members to set up monthly dues by clicking here. Monthly optional dues are $12/month.

Anyone can make monthly donations or one-time contributions of any amount by clicking here.

Making automatic monthly contributions is better, and here’s why: smaller donations over time will be easier to manage. Also, fundraising research shows that giving monthly ensures continued support. If we want 2015 to be similar to 2014, giving monthly is the way to go.

Of course, giving once helps a lot, too!

Once BWW member funding reaches the 25 contributor mark, I’ll begin looking for corporate support/grant funding for this. Anyone who makes automatic monthly contributions of $12/month or more gets a copy of the journal we print and The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014, which is coming out in April.

Once we’ve got the funding for this in place, we’ll start to talk about the second priority on our list: finding a permanent location for the BWW Writing Center. But that’s for another day.

Questions? Contact me.

BWW Book Recommendations

It’s a workshop tradition:  we take turns introducing ourselves and answer one question. Last night’s question was: “What book would you recommend?” Here’s what the members in attendance last night recommended.

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by Peter Manseau
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen
Who Stepped on a Duck? By Jim Dawson
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
I Was Thinking of Beauty by Sydnea Lea
A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
A Million Years With You by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
The Client by John Grisham
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg
Alice Munro stories
Salinger by David Salerno
The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway

It’s a diverse list: short stories, thriller fiction, highbrow literary works, poetry, biographies, and one book about the history of farting (we were surprised to hear this recommendation, too). It speaks to the diversity of opinions in the average BWW workshop.

What books would you recommend?

Naming the Disease: A Conversation with Jim Gamble

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Burlington writer Jim Gamble at a Burlington Writers Workshop meeting in November 2013.

Let’s say you’re a fiction writer and your protagonist has a disease. How do you make sure your character is more than just a collection of symptoms? That’s the problem BWW writer Jim Gamble encountered as he wrote “Good Boy,” a story he’s had workshopped a few times.

Jim and I sat down to talk about creating a well-rounded, three-dimensional, believable character who is, to some extent, defined by his disability.

Listen to this episode.

Note: The Burlington Writers Workshop podcast is now on iTunes, so pop open iTunes on whatever device you may use, search for “Burlington Writers Workshop,” and you’ll find craft conversations and a recording of our reading in Essex last July. Enjoy!

Open Letter Books Take Risks, Deliver Huge Rewards

Open Letter Books is publishing some of the best novels I’ve read in years.

While at AWP in Boston in March, I stopped by the Open Letter table, stunned by the most superficial of things: the covers of their books. Simply designed and featuring bold colors, the books seemed unpretentious, focused, and inviting. The way they felt in my hands, with their soft matte covers and crisp pages, made me want to hold them longer. Sappy, I know. But the descriptions of the stories seemed interesting, so I bought four of them. And I’m so glad I did.

Tirza coverTirza by Arnon Grunberg is the story of a man who slowly loses his mind. Jörgen Hofmeester has lost a fortune after the September 11th attacks, and now his daughter, Tirza, is dating a man who looks, to Jorgen, a lot like Mohammad Atta, one of the September 11th hijackers. Jörgen himself is seething, but he’s barely aware of his anger, or any of his feelings, which is why, when he goes crazy and commits a horrible crime, we’re barely aware of it until long after it happens. When I discovered what Jorgen had done, I had to read that passage twice, just to be sure I understood what had just been revealed.

From Tirza, I went to 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. In this novel, the protagonist, Zachary Karabashliev, is struggling to make sense of his life after his wife Stella walks out of it. He drives from the United States to Mexico for some self-destructive debauchery and, through a few strange twists, ends up with a huge bag of marijuana. Somehow he crosses back into the United States with the marijuana and decides to take it to New York City to sell. Along the way, he takes photographs of the people (18% gray is a photography reference).

Eighteen_Percent_Gray-web-194x30018% Gray is useful for writers because it uses what MFA programs typically advise you not to use: flashbacks. This whole novel depends on italicized flashbacks—conversations between Zachary and Stella as he takes pictures of her. As I read these flashbacks, I couldn’t help but remember the advice of a famous author I studied with: “Avoid flashbacks whenever possible.” Apparently it wasn’t possible to avoid them in 18% Gray, and thank goodness Karabashliev didn’t try to write around them, as I often do.

By the way, this novel has a twist at the end, too—but I won’t spoil it for you.

Finally, there’s Scars by Juan José Saer. This novel breaks the mold. It’s so far from the MFA model of storytelling that you may want to read it just to wash the repetitive three act structure out of your brain (although you could argue that this book has three acts, too). The story revolves around an event that we witness only in the fourth and final part of the book: a man shoots his wife in the face with a shotgun. The first part is the story of a young man who lives a troubled life with his mother and witnesses the murderer’s suicide. The second part features an attorney obsessed with baccarat. A judge creates a “superfluous” translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the third part. And then the murderer tells his story in the fourth.

scars_highresScars makes you work as a reader in ways that American novels today do not. I pushed through long passages in which the lawyer explains his baccarat strategy, searching wildly for the gleaming nugget of truth. I struggled to follow the judge as he drives to and from work, coldly describing people as “gorillas.” There is a reward for all this work—the sense that you have vicariously experienced life as another person. What else can you ask of a good novel?

I’ve yet to read the fourth and shortest of the novels I picked up at the Open Letter Books table: A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Did I mention that all these novels are translated from non-English languages? Tirza was written in Dutch; 18% Gray, Bulgarian; Scars, Spanish.

Perhaps I found these novels so refreshing because they came from so far away. These did not feel like American books. These books take risks. As writers, we gain so much by reading writers who remind us that risk-taking is more than just possible. Risk taking is desirable, because the rewards to readers, as these books demonstrate, are enormous.

Richard Russo On That Last Two Percent

richardrussoNovelist Richard Russo recently spoke at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In his hour-long conversation with VCFA President and novelist Thomas Greene, he spoke about the value of formal education for writers.

In describing his MFA experience, Russo said, “What it was for me was a port in the storm, for one thing. Two or three years in which you’re in a place with other people, you’re all doing the same thing, and you don’t have to explain yourself to anybody.”

Russo has also taught writing, and shared his thoughts on teaching the craft. “I think part of what a writing teacher’s job is to help a talented writer find out how to get that last short distance,” he said.

To explain what that “short distance” is, he offered this analogy: “You know how in a computer when you’re waiting for something to download and you follow the bar along and it goes up to 98% and sometimes it stalls at 98% and you think ‘What the hell? It took you thirty seconds to go 98% and now you’re sitting there waiting for that last two percent.’
It’s like that with writers […] It’s amazing how quickly you can learn all but the thing that you need to learn most. And that’s that last two percent.”

Russo said that “one of the things that a good writing teacher will do, in addition to the technical things, is to help the writer understand who he or she is and what’s coming between that writer and that last two percent.”

This is helpful advice, especially since, in the Burlington Writers Workshop, we’re all each other’s teachers.

What’s your “two percent”? And how are you working to travel that last short distance?

The BWW Book-Length Narrative Workshop

We’ve come up with a way to workshop a whole book. If you have a novel or memoir and need someone to read the whole thing, you’re going to love this. Here are the details in Q&A form.

What are you doing, exactly? We will read one writer’s book length narrative over the course of three workshops.

How can I participate in these workshops? I’ll open the three workshops up to 10 participants. To ensure continuity, these ten participants must commit to attending all three workshops.

When will these take place? These workshops will be two weeks apart and take place sometime in October and/or November. I’ll schedule them this weekend, so watch your email box and RSVP at meetup.com when the notices arrive.

I want this workshop to discuss my book. How can I make that happen? Please send a synopsis of your book to submissions@burlingtonwritersworkshop.com. Your synopsis should be a one-page description of the events of Acts 1, 2, and 3. Because we can only choose one book, and because I don’t want to make that decision all by myself, the ten participants will decide, based on this synopsis, which book to read.

What’s the deadline to send the synopsis? September 1st

How long must my book be? There is no length limit for this book length narrative. It just needs to be something with the three act structure.

A comprehensive description of the Three-Act Narrative structure, courtesy of Kate Forsyth

A comprehensive description of the Three-Act Narrative structure, courtesy of Kate Forsyth

Does my work have to be neatly carved into three acts? In general, no. Your art takes whatever shape it needs to take. But for this workshop, we need to keep this three act structure firmly in place. If this pilot workshop runs smoothly, we can work with more experimental stuff in the future.

Does my book-length narrative have to be polished? It must be your best effort. We don’t want to waste time pointing out things that you could’ve found on your own, had you put in the effort.

Who is responsible for printing my book for the workshop? The ten participants will decide whether they want a printed copy of your pages. Some may want to read it electronically, but others may want a paper copy, and you’ll be in charge of printing a copy for them. This will require some investment, but the returns will be worth it. Ten people will read your book and provide feedback essentially for free. This is a rare service and worth the cost of printing.

When do I have to post my book or deliver a paper copy? Two weeks before the first meeting. You must post the whole thing.

My whole book has to be finished? Really? Yes. You must have a full draft with a beginning, middle, and end.

Can I at least single-space my manuscript to save paper? No way. Total rookie mistake.

Why are you doing this? We’ve seen lots of pieces of novels and memoirs in the Burlington Writers Workshop, and we’ve found that it’s difficult to talk about the middle sections of longer pieces. This new workshop will allow us to maintain continuity and provide more comprehensive feedback to folks working on longer pieces.

I’m excited that we’re finally branching out into this new territory. Please contact me if you have any questions or suggestions on how we could make this work well.

On the Value of Encouragement

After having my story discussed at the workshop on July 10th, I left the workshop with a stack of copies of my story, each one of them marked with helpful comments. I made it halfway up Church Street before sitting underneath a streetlight and reading what my fellow writers so generously wrote for me.

The consensus: The story needs work. All my stories usually do. But the nice thing about these comments was the balance readers struck between what worked well and what worked less well.

This is a critical point for me, and for other writers in the workshop (I suspect). Now’s the time to decide: Given what people have said, is it worth putting more time into this piece?

writersnarcissism

Encouragement helps diminish the “self-loathing” part.

My desire to revise is a function of how good I’m feeling about myself and my abilities as a writer. If I think I’m capable, perhaps even a bit narcissistic, I’m more likely to revise a story until it actually does work. But if I’m stuck in one of my bouts of self-loathing and too busy hating myself for all the mistakes I made in the early drafts, I’d rather just clean my kitchen.

Right now, though, my kitchen’s a mess, and I’m writing.

That’s because I’ve received some very encouraging remarks on this new story. Lots of folks have told me it’s almost ready, it’s entertaining, it should end up in print. You have work to do, they said, but please do it, because the story inside this messy draft is worth cleaning up and sharing with the world.

I’m naturally skeptical of my own abilities—a classic imposter syndrome tendency—but because of the encouragement I’ve received, I feel inspired to revise this one.

For some of us, encouragement is the fuel that compels revisions. When self-doubt is all you have, one kind comment can be enough to keep you going.

I know that if the BWW writers who read my story had picked this apart without bringing up the strong parts, I would have given up on it. After all, if a workshop leads you to believe that what you’ve written is 100% garbage, then why continue? But if the workshop points out the 50% that works really well, then why not cut the half that doesn’t work and keep trying?

At our regular workshops, I make sure we talk about “what works well” before we talk about “what works less well.” When that guideline comes back around to help me, I’m reminded of how important it really is.

Seven Days: “The BWW Has Ballooned, and Published”

Lizzy Fox, performing her poetry on July 10, 2013.

Lizzy Fox, performing her poetry on July 10, 2013.

Seven Days has published a wonderful article about what The Burlington Writers Workshop has been doing. On the night of the interview, reporter Margot Harrison had originally planned to leave before 8 o’clock, but ended up staying beyond that time. If I had to guess why she decided to stay late, I’d say it’s because you’re all so awesome. Who wouldn’t want to stay late and chat with you?

To prepare for the buzz that this article will likely create, I’m launching some new meetings, which you can join for free at meetup.com. I want to make sure that if you want to attend a meeting, you can.

To that end, if you have suggestions on how I should go about scheduling meetings, please let me know: peter@burlingtonwritersworkshop.com. In fact, suggestions on ANYTHING are welcome! This is your workshop, so help me make it work better for you.

I’ve also got an idea for a three-part book-length workshop for folks who have finished manuscripts ready for review. This will probably be in October or November. More on that later.

And finally, one quick update on last night’s reading at the Essex Library. Success! I’ll post the audio and photos in the next few days. Stay tuned, and thank you for your continued dedication to reviewing each other’s work.

Chekhov’s Six Short Story Principles

chek

Anton Chekhov’s six aspects of fiction make for good revision guidelines.

I’ve been working on short stories lately, and every time I sit down to revise one, I’m reminded of how difficult they are. In my MFA workshops, my short stories were shot so full of holes that revising them seemed pointless. Once a teacher told me, “This story, in my view, can’t be fixed.” When you get a comment like that, you remember it well enough to put it in firm quotes.

Still, even with stories that “can’t be fixed,” I revise for a couple of months, then take my lessons from the failed story and start a newer, better story. Progress on my overall skill level was (and is) like watching an enormous file download very slowly.

In my novel and memoir workshops at UNCW, however, the feedback was much better, which makes me wonder why I’m even trying to write short stories when I should be playing to my strengths.

Because short stories are damned awesome, that’s why. I’ve read quite a few good ones lately and have a few well-reviewed collections on my shortlist now, including Tenth of December by George Saunders and Bobcat by Rebecca Lee (who was on my thesis committee at UNCW).

When I’m wrestling with a new short story, I tend to pick up my copy of Anton Chekhov’s stories (the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation). The stories seem so pure that I can’t help but find myself going back to basics, scanning my own stories once for character, once for plot, once for dialogue, once for setting, etc. But perhaps the most helpful part of this book is the introduction, in which Chekhov’s writing advice is quoted.

According to Chekhov, there are six aspects of a good story: “1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. compassion.”

These are helpful guidelines for revision. Perhaps my favorite of these is the last, “compassion.” That’s because it’s the most complex rule here. It asks us to avoid needlessly heaping pain and suffering on our characters. We can make them suffer, sure, but there’s got to be a clear reason for it. So I ask: Are my characters victims of my imagination? Or are they heroic in their suffering?

I’ll have one of my own stories reviewed by the BWW on Wednesday. I will admit that it’s an odd story, but after hearing so many good things about “Break and Enter” at the Book Launch Party last April, I’m wondering if I’ve turned the corner on short stories, or if I’m still writing stuff that “can’t be fixed.” Either way, I’ll wrestle with it for a few months, take my lessons, and move on.

For July, It’s 99 Cents!

bww2013coversmallThe whole point of publishing The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013 is to launch BWW stories, essays, and poems into the world.

To that end, I’ve made it even more accessible by lowering the price of the Amazon ebook to $0.99!

I’ll boost the price again at the end of July, so take advantage of this deal now. In addition to acquiring these powerful pieces of locally-made literature, you’ll also help us produce next year’s edition. All proceeds are put back into The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014.

Don’t have a Kindle? Fear not! You can download the Kindle app to your desktop computer, iPhone, or Android.

Check it out here. And thanks!

Car Accidents In Fiction: Always Cliché or Sometimes OK?

doorinthefloor823

A scene from “The Door in the Floor,” the film adaptation of John Irving’s “A Widow For One Year.”

Car accidents happen and, unfortunately, lots of people die in them. In 2009, nearly 34,000 people died in car accidents in the United States (US Census Bureau Statistic). Chances are that you’re aware of someone who has died in a car. It’s a sad and common occurrence.

Because car accidents are so common, they’re plausible in fiction. I say plausible but I hesitate to say believable because, while car accidents are possible for our fictional characters, believability depends on the context. Used well, a car accident can contribute to some larger theme; used poorly, it becomes a deus ex machina, dropped into the story because the author couldn’t think of something better.

This issue came up during a discussion of a workshop member’s story. In the story, the protagonist dies in a car accident. Workshop participants had mixed feelings about this scene. Some felt the accident packed an emotional punch and made the story poignant; others felt it was too abrupt and cut off some meaningful character development. (For the record, the story was very strong—discussions like this speak to the story’s merit.)

From there, the discussion moved to other tragic car accidents in literature. Perhaps the most well-known is the accident in The Great Gatsby. It’s an accident that represents the culmination of the carefree and reckless lifestyle of the characters in the novel and, therefore, serves some meaningful purpose. (Of course, in the 1920s and 30s, car accidents, like the car itself, were relatively new. Now we sort of accept them as part of the usual risk we take when we drive. We gawk at them as we drive by; we’re not as horrified as we once were.)

John Irving’s novels also came up during the discussion. In A Widow For One Year, a family still suffers from having lost two sons in a car accident. The accident is a pivot point for the novel—without this central tragedy, the novel couldn’t have existed. One wonders, though, if this tragedy could’ve been anything—a chainsaw accident, perhaps, or a skiing mishap. Did it really have to be a car accident?

Perhaps in A Widow for One Year, it doesn’t matter what kind of accident it was. But in Irving’s The World According to Garp, a car accident serves as a perfect place for a particular kind of injury. A boy loses his eye and, later on, claims to be able to see his dead brother with his missing eye. But the context of this accident—why the car was where it was—makes the automobile the perfect place for this mishap.

But now that we’ve read Gatsby and Garp and countless other stories with car accidents, have we seen enough? Can fiction move beyond the car accident to other, better, more thematically relevant ways to die? Should it?

I don’t have the answers here. But for my own writing, I feel compelled to avoid them, simply because they’ve been done so many times before. The car accident is the obvious choice for killing a character or somehow forcing a twist in a storyline. But if I want to surprise my readers, I will search for something a little more unexpected.